History Minutes: Town Meeting

Sometimes there just doesn’t seem to be enough time in the day. But today … with our beautiful snowscape and suspended activity, maybe you’ll take some time to sit down and enjoy a good read. Maybe just a short one. How about a History Minute?

History Minutes are created by North Yarmouth Historical and are presented at the beginning of North Yarmouth Select Board meetings. Minutes give everyone a chance to enjoy a story or two … for a minute or two! Topics have included:

The Town Swimming Pool • North Yarmouth Little League
The Fires of 1947 • Town Meeting • How Our Sidewalks Came to Be
Old Town House • Boston Post Cane • Marion Goff: A Remembrance
Remembering Ros Baston • Houses & Buildings on the Move

Here’s a recent History Minute. And it’s a fun one!

Town Meeting back in the old Wescustogo Hall, 2000. Photo taken from the balcony. Credit: Seasons of Maine, by Jean and William Hubbell.

Things you never knew about TOWN MEETING:

Phil Knight, 83, at the 1975 North Yarmouth Town Meeting. Any bets on what he was talking about? Back then, it was probably the town dump!

• How Long Has This Been Going On?

Town meetings have been going on in New England since the 1630s. And Town meeting was a serious matter: attendance was mandatory—failure to attend was punishable by a fine. Just imagine what North Yarmouth could do with the revenue this rule would surely generate! (See below … Editorial.)

As Town Meeting evolved and colonists became more empowered it was increasingly seen as a threat to Britain. Town meeting fueled the spark that ultimately led to the American Revolution. Henry David Thoreau called Town Meeting “the true Congress … the most respectable one ever assembled in the United States.”

• Our First Time

North Yarmouth’s first Town Meeting was held on August 28, 1849 in the Congregational Church. On March 27, 1854, it was held for the first time in our new town hall (NOW Old Town House). In 1958 Town Meeting moved to the newly-completed Wescustogo Grange Hall.

• Affairs to Remember

Back in the day, Town Meetings were often well-attended. They were held at a time when winter weather prevented most outdoor farm work, and gatherings of any sort were especially welcome.

Dick Baston, born in North Yarmouth in 1927, remembered spontaneous “caucuses” on a porch behind the Town House, when one or more attendees strolled outside with a bottle in his pocket during a meeting break.

Men attended, mostly; any mention of Town Meeting by Ellen Marston Lawrence in her journals (1868 to 1932) notes only that her male family members went to Meeting. Women gained the right to vote in 1919, so it’s unlikely they were welcome before then, anyway.

Isabel Hayes (1887–1965) served as a Town Meeting ballot clerk for many years. In 1959, she wrote: “Town Meeting day and our first crack at the Australian ballot system, thanks to some crackpot at last year’s Meeting. I don’t remember who but if I have him pointed out today I’ll tell him what I think of him.” (the Australian ballot is a voting method in which a voter’s identity in an election or a referendum is anonymous.)

Despite her comments, Isabel notes the next day that “Dwight Verrill’s wife Patricia cast the first vote under the new Australian system. A very good meeting all in all, was home just before midnight with 136 ballots cast.” (!!!!!)  (For a couple of years, our town scheduled Town Meeting in the evening, to try to ratchet up attendance.)

Dick Baston remembered that “Putting in a culvert would be good for half an hour. And if there was disagreement, well, there’d be a secret ballot.” —At that point, everybody would be called to vote, including the three or four women in Wescustogo’s kitchen who were preparing  a bean dinner for the meeting’s midday break down.

• Neither Snow, Nor Snow …

The weather often played a big part in March Town Meeting:

In 1931, Ellen Lawrence wrote in her diary: “They had the Town meeting, not so many out as usual. They went over the road with the tractor and down through our dooryard … couldn’t get through the drifts …”

IN 1957, Isabel Hayes wrote: “20 inches of snow in some parts of Maine, and I guess that’s us … the kids were bug-eyed with excitement. Went to bed by kerosene lamplight. Certainly was a humdinger, lots of accidents.”

• Editorial.

Many of the towns around us have a council form of government; decisions about spending and programs are put into the hands of elected councilors and financial decisions are ongoing, rather than dependent on a one-day series of decision making.

North Yarmouth holds to Town Meeting. And that makes attendance very important. All residents have a responsibility for making decisions that will affect our town for the coming year. If you don’t come … well, others will end up making decisions for you.

Come to Town Meeting. AND get educated: read the Warrant in advance (agenda and supporting information): it will be on the town website. Got a question? Ask our town manager, Select Board members, and other committee members.

If our town reaches a point where we are too big or if citizens do not participate in Town Meeting, we would probably need to turn to another form of local government.

Mark Your Calendar.

North Yarmouth’s 2023 Town Meeting is coming up. Mark your calendar—June 17, 9 AM.